By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News
HUGOTON - Arnold Schwarzenegger would quiver with envy if he walked the rugged High Plains around Steve and Brenda Kinser's ranch.
Across these prairie pastures in southwest Kansas, the Kinsers' cattle graze - but not the typical ones most see along Kansas roadways. These animals are chiseled like body builders. Their massive muscles explode on their frames.
The odd-looking livestock are called Belgian Blues - a genetic anomaly on hooves.
"They look like they are on steroids," Steve Kinser says with a smile.
Yet, there is nothing unnatural about this unique breed, although the bulky livestock with more meat on the hoof aren't large in number across a nation where breeds like Angus and Herefords dominate the market.
However, as Kinser drives his pickup across his Stevens County pastures, he talks about his efforts to promote the Belgian Blue breed, which he says could grow in popularity if health-conscious Americans knew what he did.
Belgian Blues are a lean beef that is just as juicy and tender but lower in calories and has less cholesterol than conventional burger and steak.
"It's just what the consumer wants," Kinser says, but adds that in a beef industry designed for visual grading, Belgians just don't fit in with their little, if any marbling traits, although the breed's fine, short muscle fibers make the meat just as tasty.
"When you don't fit the industry standards, you have to find someone who wants it," he said.
For the past 20-some years, Kinser has marketed his meat and genetics to folks across the region. Now he is hoping to take the breed a step further in the domestic market. In coming weeks, Yoder Meats will test market Belgian Blue beef to see if consumers really do want it.
It took about 150 years to develop the bulky but lean characteristics of the Belgian Blue.
This cattle breed was developed, at first, as a dual-purpose breed. However, after World War II, farmers in Belgium needed to expand their beef industry but didn't have large plots on which the animals could graze.
Thus, through breeding, they developed the beefy Belgian Blue. The reason for this extreme muscle development is a mutation in one of the breed's genes, the myostatin gene. Myostatin is a protein that normally inhibits muscle growth after a certain point of development. Pure Belgian Blues carry two copies of the gene.
The result is an increase in the number of muscle fibers that develop. This, combined with additional selective breeding, has resulted in today's animal that has an unusually lean and muscular build, according to the American Belgian Blue Breeders' Association.
Belgian crosses typically have about 7 percent more meat than conventional cattle, according to an extensive study by the Agriculture Department's Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb. They also have less trim waste.
An industry shear test for tenderness has the breed measuring up to even better than conventional beef breeds. The product also has more protein but is lower in cholesterol, calories and fat.
Crossbred Blues also have good calving ease, Kinser said, noting he rarely has to pull a calf. The breed is also are highly docile. Kinser can walk up to his bulls and heifers in the middle of his pastures and pet them.
The Kinsers got involved with the breed in the late 1980s. As a cattle buyer, Steve Kinser had purchased some lower-yielding cattle and was looking for a breed to cross with them.
"We were looking for a niche," he said. "I saw these cattle and fell in love with them."
Today, Kinser works as a nurse but runs his commercial beef operation in his free time on land once in the heart of Dust Bowl country. Much of his cattle have some of the Belgian genetics, which run from 25 to 75 percent.
Drought has cut his herd to about 40 percent of his normal, but Kinser hopes that weather conditions will change and plans to expand his numbers. What meat and genetics he has to sell is already spoken for by longtime customers.
Steve Dollarhide, an Oklahoma rancher and vice president of the breed association, said he started breeding Belgian Blues a dozen years ago to put more meat on his calves. He sees promise in the industry for a niche beef product. However, at present, there are not enough cattle to fill the need if demand would grow exponentially.
"We don't have a large number to start with," he said. "Do you go out and find the cattle first or find the customers to drive the increase in cattle?"
That means changing perception, despite the fact his product does not have the marbling and will most likely grade select - not choice or prime.
Dollarhide said he sold an animal to someone at the Tulsa State Fair who eventually butchered it. The butcher, seeing that the animal didn't have much marbling, told the rancher he didn't know why he would want to butcher the meat, saying it would be too tough to eat.
"(The rancher) told him to cut out a few T-bones and grind the rest up for hamburger," he said.
"He called me back a month or six weeks later," Dollarhide said. "He said it was the best T-bone steak in his life. 'Now I have 900 pounds of hamburger and I should have listened to you."
"It takes people making them realize that it really is that tender."
Against conventional thinking
Yoder Meats owner Alan Waggoner had the same opinion when Kinser began calling him about Belgian Blue meat.
Few know about the breed of cattle. Moreover, Waggoner, who has a master's degree in meat science, knew it went against conventional thinking, as well as what he was taught in school.
"But this kid from western Kansas where I'm from, he told me 'the best meat I ever had was Belgian Blue,'" he said.
He saw him again at a funeral. The man told him the same thing, along with the fact the best pork comes from Berkshires.
Waggoner said he has the same perception about the breed of hogs. He realized this person must know what he is talking about and decided he would meet with Kinser. Waggoner told Kinser to dig into his freezer and send him some product.
Brenda Kinser brought up some meat one day when she was passing through the area to watch her daughter play volleyball for Hutchinson Community College.
"I took a look at it," he said. "It was brisket and round steak. I thought, 'he certainly is going to challenge himself. But I fixed both products and both were phenomenal," Waggoner said, noting his wife, who isn't a big meat eater, went back for seconds.
Waggoner said he would get a few head of Kinser's beef this week to butcher. He plans to launch a test market of the product in coming weeks, probably after Thanksgiving. He also has an upcoming meeting scheduled to talk about putting 12 head into a feeding program.
If the demand is there, he will begin selling percentage Belgian Blue beef at his store locations.
"We're excited because it is an all-natural product," Waggoner said. "We have a relatively high-yielding animal that has the palatability traits of some of the other animals."
Kinser, too, remains hopeful that demand will grow as others see Belgian Blues as another alternative in the marketplace.
"This first trial run will be exciting to see where we can go from here," Kinser said. "It would be nice to be able to supply customers with our kind of beef and a tender lean product."